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December 3, 2012

Was a Texas student really expelled for refusing to wear a tracking chip?

The Texas school district that began requiring its students to wear radio-frequency identification (RIFD) tracking chips this year is now facing a fight in federal court. A sophomore, Andrea Hernandez, has refused to wear the ID tag on biblical grounds, comparing it to "the mark of the beast." Last week, attorneys for the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group, announced that they're filing suit in federal court to keep Hernandez from being expelled.

The case has set privacy activists ablaze, and hackers claiming affiliation with Anonymous joined the fight recently by targeting the school district's website with a denial-of-service attack.

But those demonizing the district have ignored one key fact that could keep the case from being the big test of religious freedom, student privacy and government surveillance that some media reports are making it out to be. The school isn't actually expelling - or suspending, as some outlets have it - Hernandez for refusing to wear the electronic tracking chip. District officials have repeatedly offered to let Hernandez come to school wearing an identification card from which the RFID chip and battery have been removed.

"We have to respect their religious beliefs," district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told me in a phone interview. "So we said, 'All right, if this is objectionable to you because it violates your religious beliefs, then we will not put the RFID technology in the card. But you still have to wear the ID card like every other student at school.' Daddy said no, and the student said no." Gonzalez denied a report that the compromise came on the condition that Hernandez agree to stop criticizing the program and publicly support it. "That's just untrue," he said.

The really interesting question is whether the school's RFID tracking program violates students' privacy. But that might be a tough case to make in court, given that we're talking about minors on school grounds. And the school's compromise offer also takes the steam out of claims that it has punished or harassed Hernandez because of her refusal to be tracked. The school's students use the ID chips to check in at the front door, buy lunch and vote for the Homecoming king and queen, but Gonzalez said Hernandez could do all the same things with the chip removed. "We were very explicit with her and her family that all of the access and services that she would have gotten with RFID would still be available via this non-RFID card," Gonzalez told me.

By framing her objections primarily in terms of religious liberty, Hernandez has won from the school a concession that renders the privacy issue moot. So her lawyers at the Rutherford Institute have to make the case that an even ID badge with no tracking capabilities runs counter to her Christian principles, as they claimed in the motion they filed in federal court last week.

Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead told me that, according to the Hernandez family's beliefs, "any kind of identifying badge from the government is the mark of the beast, which means that you pay allegiance to a false God." Adding that many Muslims and Jews hold similar beliefs, Whitehead predicted, "This is going to be a problem across the country."

No doubt Whitehead is right that we're likely to see more battles over RFID in schools in the years to come. But in the broader national debate over technologies that make government surveillance easier and more pervasive than ever, the religious-freedom issue is a red herring. These tags aren't the mark of the beast - they're the mark of a society grappling with troubling tradeoffs between convenience, security and privacy.



 

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